It May Be a Crap Lager But It's Our Crap Lager

March 08, 2017

By Aaron Goldfarb, March 08, 2017


That’s what my college roommate Tim would order when we went to the bar, like he was a movie character simply asking the barkeep for a non-branded “beer.”

Yet, that often worked.

Tim was from Scranton, Pennsylvania, the hardscrabble town of coal-mining, railroading, and a whole lot of Yuengling Lager drinking. So much so, that in Scranton, and much of central and eastern Pennsylvania, the iconic beer can be ordered by simply asking for “Lager.”

We’re now in a time where beer brands are moving toward one extreme or the other. You have these super cool, hyper-local breweries that are in some cases only selling their hours-fresh offerings straight from the brewery and nowhere else. Then you have the big boys – some craft, some not so much – working their way toward utter shelf domination the entire world over. There’s a strange subset though that is an amalgamation of both – uniquely local beers owned by a big brand.

The hometown love for these beers made more sense in earlier eras that lacked choice. Today, though, it just feels odd to continue celebrating these adjunct lagers that are often just as thin in taste, or humdrum, as the BudMillerCoors beers of the world. Especially since many are owned by the Los Angeles-based Pabst Brewing Company which brews most of these “local” beers in the Milwaukee area. (You almost have to wonder if some of these beers are the same recipes in different packaging.)

It was the 'steelworkers’ beer, the iron workers’ beer, the workers’ beer,' and then, when the mills closed in the 1970s, it became the unemployed's beer.”

Suffice to say, the histories and current provenance of many of these brews are still steeped in subterfuge, all the easier to allow locals to keep loving them and supporting them.

Below, a look at a few adjunct lagers that remain hometown heroes:

Old Style
Popular in:  Chicago
Originated in:  1902
Brewed today in:  La Crosse, Wisconsin (City Brewery)
Owner:  Pabst Brewing Company

All is rosy in Wrigley Field these days, but it wasn’t just a couple years back. Of course the Cubs were still riding a century-long World Series-less streak, but more significantly, the muckety mucks in charge had decided to remove Old Style from the concession stands.

The “double-brewed” beer (say what?) has long been insanely popular with locals, even if the beer has never actually been from Chicago. Originally crafted by the G. Heileman Brewing Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, it initially sold well in most of the upper midwest; when the brand began sponsoring the Cubs in 1950 it became “our great beer.”

Despite becoming part of Pabst, and despite Chicago growing into a helluva craft beer town, the luster has never faded. Ultimately, Old Style remains at the Friendly Confines, where fans hoisted many as the Cubbies clinched the title last year.

Iron City
Popular in:  Pittsburgh
Originated in:  1861
Brewed today in:  Latrobe, PA (Latrobe Brewery)
Owner:  Pittsburgh Brewing Co.

A Pennsylvania lager started by a German immigrant, Edward Frauenheim’s Frauenheim, Miller & Company initially did such big business it eventually formed a trust with 20 other area breweries. The Pittsburgh Brewing Company would soon be the third-biggest brewery in America – at their height brewing a million barrels per year – and post-prohibition began acquiring even more breweries.

According to Pittsburgh City Paper editor Charlie Deitch, it was the “steelworkers’ beer, the iron workers’ beer, the workers’ beer,” and then, when the mills closed in the 1970s, it became the unemployed’s beer. By the late-1970s it was one of only around 40 breweries left in the entire country, capitalizing on its pop-top cans and aluminum bottle innovations.

In 1985, Pittsburgh Brewing was acquired by an Australian billionaire, though it was eventually sold back to a Pittsburgh entrepreneur, Michael Carlow. When Carlow was arrested for fraud, Keystone Brewing took the brand over via bankruptcy court. By 2005, Pittsburgh Brewing had to file for bankruptcy itself. In 2007, the brewery was brought out of bankruptcy by a New York-based private equity firm, who restored the Iron City Brewing name, though moved its brewing operations 70 miles away. Sales have been dwindling of late, though Pittsburgh Brewing still remains a top 50 brewery based on sales volume, even as Iron City is only sold in Pennsylvania.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingIt's a work of art, really, in just the right light.

Yuengling Lager
Popular in:  Pennsylvania
Originated in:  1829
Brewed today in:  Pottsville, PA/Tampa, FL
Owner:  D. G. Yuengling & Son

This amber lager is probably the only “local legend” that isn’t steeped in hokum. Whether you consider them craft or macro, D. G. Yuengling & Son is still an independently-owned brewery still brewing its signature beer in its birth place (and Tampa).

“America’s Oldest Brewery” was opened by German immigrant brewer David Gottlieb Jüngling in the 1800s and has continually been passed down the family tree to currently sit in the hands of the (now-Americanized) Dick Yuengling family. The company survived prohibition by brewing near beer (0.5% alcohol) and ice cream and watched as its cult status surprisingly stretched beyond Pennsylvania in the 1990s. Today, the beer is sold in 19 states, though the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania remains the only place you can simply ask for it by “Lager.”

Stag Beer
Popular in:  St. Louis
Originated in:  1907
Brewed today in:  Milwaukee, WI (MillerCoors facilities)
Owner:  Pabst Brewing Company

“If I had one desert island beer, that was the only beer I could drink for the rest of my life, it’d be Stag,” Wil Rogers, the brand specialist at Schlafly’s, explains. Mostly unknown to the rest of the country, at one time Stag outsold even Budweiser within St. Louis. It still has a cult following amongst locals, even ones like Rogers who are steeped in the city’s underrated craft beer scene.

Initially brewed across the Mississippi in Belleville, Illinois, the name Stag was chosen to replace a beer called “Kaiser,” coincidentally just as World War I was approaching. Post-prohibition, the brand had rapid growth and underwent a series of acquisitions, until Pabst ultimately acquired it in 1999. In 2005 Stag even won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

National Bohemian
Popular in:  Baltimore
Originated in:  1885
Brewed today in:  Eden, NC/Albany, GA (MillerCoors facilities)
Owner:  Pabst Brewing Company

Another “lite” lager uniquely associated with a baseball team, “Natty Boh” inexplicably disappeared from Camden Yards concession stands during the 2016 season and Baltimoreans were upset. Though the beer hasn’t been brewed in Maryland since 1996, nearly 90% of Natty Boh sales remain in Baltimore, where locals still love it. “I view Mr. Boh as the unofficial mascot of Baltimore,” says Todd Unger, who owns a store that sells merchandise branded with a guy who kinda looks related to the Pringles mascot.

Mr. Boh first appeared post-Prohibition when the brand began to really take off within the city. Amazingly, during the 1950s and 60s, National Bohemian’s president actually owned the Orioles. As it began losing market share in the 1970s and 80s, a series of business dealings led to Natty Boh being acquired by Stroh’s in 1996 and then becoming part of Pabst in 1999.

One rumor long circulated is that Minnesota was the only locality willing to drink this beer when it had its first national roll-out.”

Popular in:  Rhode Island
Originated in:  1890
Brewed today in:  Rochester, NY (Genesee Brewing Company)
Owner:  Narragansett Brewing Company

“Hi Neighbor!” remains the motto for ’gansett, the beer that was at one time New England’s best-selling beer, even ahead of Budweiser. Started in 1890 in a brick building in Cranston, Rhode Island, the popular brand soon had a full campus-worth of facilities on its property, with horse stables, blacksmiths, America’s first modern bottling line, an ice plant, and a fleet of trucks and refrigerated rail cars.

In 1965, though, the brewery was sold to Falstaff in St. Louis, and by 1981 Narragansett was closed for good. In 2005, former Nantucket Nectars exec Mark Hellendrung and some other investors purchased the brand with an aim to resurrect it locally. Unfortunately, they initially had no choice but to brew the beer in Rochester, New York. Sales are once again strong within New England, and thankfully, just last year, Narragansett helped break ground on a new brewing facility in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Shiner Bock
Popular in:  Texas
Originated in:  1913
Brewed today in:  Shiner, TX
Owner:  The Gambrinus Company

Though a lager, Shiner Bock is the only bock beer that fits our criteria – which is something to be proud of, Texas! Originally brewed as a spring seasonal release for Lent, the fairly flavorful Bavarian-style amber bock wasn’t an immediate hit, accounting for less than 1% of Texas beer sales well into the 1980s.

Former Grupo Modelo sales guy Carlos Alvarez acquired the brewery in 1989 and now “Shiner” is brewed year-round. (It currently accounts for around three-quarters of Spoetzl’s brewing capacity.) Shiner sales began to balloon in the ’90s and today the still independently-owned Spoetzel is the tenth largest brewery in the U.S. Shiner Bock is now sold in 49 states – sorry Utah – and displaced Texans still won’t STFU about it.

Michelob Golden Draft Light
Popular in:  Minnesota
Originated in:  1991
Brewed today in:  St. Louis, MO (Anheuser-Busch)
Owner:  Anheuser-Busch

Surely the strangest local crappy lager is this one that doesn’t even pretend to be something uniquely local. These days Minnesota is a land of splendid craft breweries like Surly and Town Hall, yet this oddity remains the state’s most widely-drank beer.

A “midwest exclusive” from Anheuser-Busch, most locals don’t even understand the massive popularity of “Mich Golden Light.” There are numerous blog posts trying to unravel the mystery – one rumor long circulated is that Minnesota was the only locality willing to drink this beer when it had its first national roll-out.

A relatively “new” local legend, this bland yet still offensive “cold-filtered” lager is on tap at most all bars in the state and easily outsells the nationally-available macros. (It’s strangely ID’ed as a “draft beer” even when in the can or bottle.) As a Minnesota friend once told me, “It’s basically horse piss, but all the mullets around here drink it like it’s their job. But I wouldn’t touch it with someone else’s lips.”


Thanks to Steph Byce of Good Beer Hunting for the header image. 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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